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Culture Books


The right routines

Four recent books on Christian living

Handle With Care by Lore Ferguson Wilbert: Wilbert asserts that our culture—including the church—increasingly avoids touch, even between close friends of the same or opposite sex, believing it must be infused with sexual meaning. But, she says, Jesus was unafraid to minister through touch and let people touch Him. This book asks, “What does it mean to be good at touch?” Wilbert, sexually abused as a child and raised in the purity culture as a homeschooler in a large family, understands the complexities. She avoids how-tos and tips, but rather asks readers to consider the redemptive power of healthy, pure, faithful, and ministering touch. To touch is to “risk brokenness, making mistakes, getting it wrong,” but she notes Christ came “in a body for my body” and redeems what is broken.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer: A former pastor of a multisite megachurch, Comer knows what it’s like constantly to feel hurried. He argues that our consumer-driven culture pulls our attention away from connection with God, other people, and even our own souls. “Hurry kills relationships, joy, gratitude, and wisdom,” Comer writes. Symptoms of a hurried life include irritability, restlessness, escapist behaviors, workaholism, isolation, and letting go of spiritual disciplines. Yet Jesus famously said His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Comer challenges readers to replace a hurried life with apprenticeship with Jesus—to be with Him and to do what He would do if He were you. 

Is This It? by Rachel Jones: Jones writes that people in their 20s and 30s often experience a “quarter-life crisis.” They assumed they would have life figured out, but instead experience self-doubt, rootlessness, discontentment, and indecision. Rather than prodding millennials to grow up, Jones suggests they need to “grow more like Jesus” and gain maturity by persevering through trials. The book validates common young adult experiences in the workplace, church, dating, and marriage. It also explores emotions like loneliness, nostalgia, regret, and fear. With wit and honesty, Jones challenges readers to pay closer attention to Scripture and how Jesus lived. In singleness, for example, the “what-ifs and if-onlys” pale in comparison to the wedding feast waiting in heaven. She says Christians will not “feel like they’ve missed out or been left out.”

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport: Newport wisely challenges readers to consider the costliness of hyperconnectivity in the digital age. He notes that many joined Facebook to maintain connections across the country but now find it hard to maintain an uninterrupted conversation with a friend across the table. Companies spend billions of dollars to keep users glued to their screens, and the call to digital minimalism is about valuing autonomy over usefulness or efficiency. Newport recommends a 30-day “digital declutter,” eliminating all optional technology, and then reintroducing specific digital tools after pinpointing their value and conditions for usage. Christians will benefit from the book’s call to rediscover offline practices such as silence, solitude, leisure, long conversations, and digital sabbaths. Newport writes, “Humans are not wired to be constantly wired.” 

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Intriguing ideas

How and why America has changed

Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement (Simon & Schuster, 2020) is a cranky book with lots of insights into how and why America has changed since the mid-20th century. Here are seven.

1. Why the 1960s feminist revolution? Caldwell notes that between 1920 and 1958, women went from one-third of college students to one-fourth. The GI Bill worked well for men, but “women were left stranded in empty houses full of high-powered cleaning machinery. This had never been their lot before.”

2. How did President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara misunderstand the war in Vietnam? Johnson, seeing war as an anti-poverty project, launched a Mekong River Redevelopment Commission: “We’re going to turn the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley.” McNamara was a suite-level numbers guy. Caldwell writes that the war, not the protests against it, was “the sister movement to the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society.” 

3. How did President Ronald Reagan succeed and fail? Caldwell says “Reagan changed the country’s political mood for a while, but left its structures untouched.”

4. Why has globalization created such a backlash? The main purpose of “global value chains … was not industrial (seeking out value in the earth’s far corners) but political (getting across the border to someplace, anyplace, where the obligations to workers that American companies had accumulated since the New Deal could be repudiated). Sneaking a manufacturing operation out the door one stage of production at a time aroused less disruption, suspicion, and controversy than moving it lock, stock, and barrel.”

5. How did the federal government contribute to the Great Recession of 2008? Under political pressure the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and its two siblings, Ginnie Mae and Freddie Mac, pushed dangerous mortgages onto borrowers who did not have the funds to handle them. By 2007 these federally backed entities were supposed to have low-income loans be 56 percent of their portfolios, and two-fifths of those were high risk. Almost half of new homeowners had no down payments: “Banks had trillions of dollars in loans on their books that would never have been made, absent government pressure.”

6. What’s one reason the number of births has declined? Philosopher Bertrand Russell even in the 1920s, despite being a “free love” advocate, forecast what would happen if the government replaced fathers as protectors and providers: “It would eliminate from their lives the only emotion equal in importance to sex love. … It would make men less active and probably cause them to retire earlier from work. … The elimination of paternity as a recognized social relation would tend to make men’s emotional life trivial and thin, causing in the end a slowly growing boredom and despair.”

7. In what field during the last 50 years have we had a big breakthrough? “Not in travels but in communications. The distance abolished was the kind that is in people’s heads. … Computers have been not so much an expression of America’s historic ingenuity as an alternative to it.”


Christopher Caldwell’s analysis also bulwarked two of my own thoughts:

Why did school busing create such a backlash in Boston? Rich whites were pushing around poor whites without risking anything themselves. Judge W. Arthur Garrity, who lived in the wealthy, 100 percent white suburb of Wellesley and issued the decree, appointed a panel of “distinguished experts” to study the controversy. Massachusetts Senate President William Bulger said they were distinguished “only in the sense that not one of them was the parent of a child who would be affected by forced busing.” White children made up 60 percent of the Boston public school system when busing began in 1974, but only 20 percent less than a decade later.

How have the Iraq and Afghanistan wars hurt the U.S. as well as the inhabitants of those countries? Beyond deaths and injuries, George W. Bush’s administration incurred debts greater than those presided over by any other Republican president—partly to finance the war and partly to raise social spending so Democrats wouldn’t rebel. The national debt doubled during the Bush years, doubled again during the Obama years, and is rising by 1 trillion dollars per year under Donald Trump. 

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Stories of survival

Four nonfiction books

And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain by Elisabeth Asbrink: A stash of 500 letters between members of an Austrian Jewish family survived World War II. Asbrink uses them to tell the Ullmann story—parents trapped in Vienna, their 13-year-old son Otto sent to safety in Sweden. In the early days, the Ullmanns expected reunification. They wrote about everyday life and peppered their letters with expressions of love and admonishments to be good and work hard. As conditions in Vienna worsened, the parents hid their circumstances from Otto—and he hid from them the rising anti-Semitism in Sweden. Asbrink’s thorough research and interviews—including with the Nazi-sympathizing Ikea founder who befriended Otto—allows her to describe what parents and son left unsaid. Hostility to Christians seeps in from time to time.

Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War by Duncan White: White documents a time when literature was so impor­tant that both the Soviet Union and the United States used writers and books as Cold War weapons. He tells in rich detail the stories of writers like Stephen Spender, Ernest Hemingway, Mary McCarthy, Boris Pasternak, and Graham Greene. The book begins with the Spanish Civil War, where George Orwell and Arthur Koestler first saw the Stalinist left in action. Though the book at times becomes a general history of the Cold War, it’s most interesting when it focuses on the writers who took sides and those who found themselves without a side: They ­abhorred America’s civil rights record and Vietnam policy, but also recoiled from Soviet purges and crackdowns on dissent.

A Prayer for Orion by Katherine James: Author Katherine James begins this heartrending account of her son’s heroin addiction with a phone call from her son’s friend: “Hey, we can’t wake Sweetboy up. … He’s breathing, but he’s really blue and he won’t wake up.” As a writer, James offers an unflinching portrayal of addiction, and the fear and devastation it leaves in its wake. Since she writes as a Christian, she also shows the many ways, both large and small, that God enters into the mess. James jumps around in time, so we see Sweetboy as a small child, a curious kid, and an addict. We see a family engaged in deep conversations with other Lost Boys while missing warning signs from their son. Intense and emotionally powerful, the book offers hope that God hears the prayers of the brokenhearted.

Grace Will Lead Us Home by Jennifer Berry Hawes: When 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in Charleston while they prayed at church, it shocked the city and nation. Reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes tells the story of the shooting, the police manhunt that followed, and the federal trial. She goes behind the scenes to show how the shooting brought white and black Charleston together for a time. It also opened up new wounds, especially after some family members spoke words of forgiveness to an unrepentant Roof. Hawes fleshes out the trial record with interviews of survivors and others. The result: a detailed accounting of how the tragedy played out in the lives of individuals and institutions. Christian readers will appreciate Hawes’ respectful treatment of the Christian faith in the lives of victims and survivors.

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